Saturday, August 25, 2007

My First Greek Tragedy: Aeschylus' Persians

(response to Aeschlus' play THE PERSIANS (472 BC) , adapted by Ellen McLaughlin, produced by Theatre in the Square of Marietta, GA)

It's hard to know how much of this was Aeschylus, and how much was interpolated by the adapter Ellen McLaughlin, but I was touched by the poetry and by the author's empathy for the losers, his enemies, in war.

The playwright Aeschylus was himself a participant in both the battle of Marathon, when Athens repelled Darius and his Persian army, and an eyewitness to the battle of Salamis, when 300 Athenians defeated the imperial army of Xerxes, amassed to avenge his father Darius's humiliating defeat.

The first lines are for chorus, the old men and advisers of Persia who tell of the glorious day that "thousands on thousands" of men from black Ethiopian horsemen to Egyptians, Indians, and Arabians joined the Persians to sail in their "tall ships" to Athens, the one spot that refused to pay tribute to Xerxes's empire. After the sounds of marching and horses faded, and all they could see was the dust kicked up by the army, they say that silence swept into their capital city like water on the beach.

Before too long, a messenger comes in with news that Xerxes fell for a trap, forming his ships into a tight cordon around Athens's harbors, only to be rammed from behind, ships splintering from direct hits or from accidentally hitting each other in confusion. The elite corps were hacked to pieces, under the watch of Xerxes in his "privileged high position" on a cliff above.

As a drama, there's not much happening here. It's just the slow realization that the mightiest empire on earth has been cut to shreds, and that there's nothing left to do but to mourn the dead.

The production, however, looked wonderful, and kept the unfolding information interesting with visual variations on a theme. What we saw was a town square in Persia, stone walls decorated with a mural of Persian soldiers. Each counsellor had his / her own garb. A well stage right was elevated, and actors frequently dipped hands or cups or cloth into the water there. Stage left, from the Prologue to the end, a stream of red sand fell as in an hour glass to make a mound that, in the course of the action, will be spread by the hand full across the stage. Surrounding all is a curtain tattered at the edge and colored red, like the sand.

Poles spearing spheres, decorated like Faberge eggs, operated as decorations and as ceremonial staffs at different times in the show.

A dead king rises from the well; the actors dipping into the well bring up red sand and pour it on themselves as if it were water -- a shocking change after we've seen water poured from the same well. At the end, last to enter, the boy-king whose rash decisions are responsible for this massive defeat kneels under the falling sand and pleads with his people to join him in mourning the dead for whom he takes responsibility.

I wonder at the Greek playwright and war veteran writing this empathetic portrait of the Queen mother, the humiliated and horrified soldier-messenger, and advisors, in the the extremity of their agony. The last to enter is Xerxes himself, tortured by guilt and shame, longing for death. Would the Athenians have exulted in their enemies' humiliation and pain? Only one small passage of dialogue praises the Athenians, as the Queen of Persia seeks to understand how Athenians can possibly organize themselves into a fighting force without a strong king to enslave and order them.

Naturally, we see this now as a parallel to the mighty USA withdrawing from Iraq. Is Bush Jr. the Xerxes making a misstep to correct his father's missed opportunity? A recent animated movie called 300 played with the same parallel in reverse: the 300 Athenians are the brave free men throwing themselves into battle against a vast Iranian enemy.

That this same ancient battle can be played either way throws us back on the realization that war never changes in its broad outline: it will always be "our bright boys" marching confidently into destruction, whether they win or not.

While I was taken by this production, I have to complain about the acting. While the cast threw themselves into their roles with energy and intensity, the ones who resisted the easy solution of screaming their grief and anger were the ones who came off looking best; others seemed to be indulging in that 70s style of acting with a lot of pained facial expressions, trembling hands, and screamed lines. People around me snickered throughout the show. It didn't help when the dead King emerged from Hades in an impressive breastplate, a flimsy skirt, and skinny legs in tights. He should have stayed in the well!

Summer Poetry : Time to Catch up on Praise

(My monthly review of the periodical POETRY)

The "summer break" issue of POETRY begins with three pieces by poet Tony Hoagland that strike me as more wise than wise-guy, leaving none of the bitter aftertaste left by his collection WHAT NARCISSISM MEANS TO ME. (I bought it for the title!) "Barton Springs" moves past a matter-of-fact acceptance of death ("my allotted case of cancer") to the poet's resolve to quit complaining about life and, "because all things are joyful near water," he hopes there's "time to catch up on praise." Another poem, "The Big Grab," deals with ways that commercialism has "hijacked and twisted" our language: "Nothing means what it says, / and it says it all the time." The third in Hoagland's triptych ends again on a note of praise, including an incidental image that seems just right, of description being the "affectionate cousin" of narrative, "description / which lingers, / and loves for no reason."

This issue features "Q & A" with some of the poets, a feature that I hope will continue. I was relieved to read comments by Joanie Mackowski after enjoying her poem in which a woman painlessly and suddenly dissolves in air and blows away, aware of all the places that her particles go. It was a well-imagined little story, with a peculiar mood, but I was afraid that I had missed in it some kind of metaphorical commentary on women's life today. In fact, Mackowski says, "It's a short comedy: a woman appears, granulates, and then the marries the world. . . And comedy does not mean all funny, of course: tragedy and comedy together make a Mobius strip, each around the edge from the other." She compares it to Ovid's metamorphoses, only without gods to excuse the magic.

Another Q & A with Alice Friman adds to the appreciation of her poem "Art & Science." The poem plays around with puns and whimsies, comparing the behavior of our molecules to the social behavior of ourselves. "Then is it not passing strange," the poem asks, that "this vast multitude [of molecules and cells] jostling" just "wants to be alone?" She comments in the Q & A on her intentions to be "Smarty-ass clever ( I hope) with all those interior rhymes" until the end, when "the wordplay ceases, and all that busyness funnels down to quiet, solidifying into the single image and the single note." She has in mind, she says, the musical model of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major.

A poet named Todd Boss describes a scene in couplets of lines of just two beats, with no end rhymes until the conclusion, but with similar sounds on every accent, as "the nervous birds" or "a school for unruliness." The opening lines are worth remembering for the visual aptness of the image and the way he uses that to introduce his theme of "making":

shifts, mercurial,
like modeling clay,

the million thumbs
of wind at work upon it,

the artist unable to come
to a single conclusion.

Some big name stars, old friends of mine, appear here as well: John Updike, Richard Wilbur, and Billy Collins. These guys have always made it their business to praise and appreciate, and their works consistently illustrate Hoagland's notion that describing life is a way of loving life.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Al Qaeda Alternative

I've listened to Krista Tippett's radio program SPEAKING OF FAITH this morning. The teaser for the show was American Muslim Eboo Patel saying this:

Young people want to impact the world. They want their footprint on Earth, and they're going to do it somehow. So when people say to me, 'Oh, Eboo, you know, you run this sweet little organization called the Interfaith Youth Core and you do such nice things, you bring kids together,' I say, 'Yeah, you know, there's another youth organization out there. It's called al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda's been built over the past 25 years and with lots of ideas of how you recruit young people and get them to think that this is the best way they can impact the world.'
Tippett then said,

So much of the news of recent years has a religious component, for good or ill, and often involving the young. Since I interviewed Eboo Patel, I watch this unfold with a Gwendolyn Brooks poem ringing in my ears — a poem that he has taken as his rallying cry. It is called "Boy Breaking Glass":

"I shall create! If not a note, a hole.
If not an overture, a desecration."

I spoke with Eboo Patel two years ago, just before Muslim youth in suburban Paris began to set their neighborhoods on fire, and weeks after four young Muslim men walked into three subway stations and boarded one bus in London with bombs strapped to their bodies. In light of such events, Eboo Patel is puzzled by people who patronizingly describe his own projects as "sweet." He sees the work of honoring the vast spiritual longings and religious energies of the young of every faith as work of extreme urgency for us all. At 23, he founded the Interfaith Youth Core, now at work across America and in several countries.
He calls Al Qaeda and their ilk "religious totalitarians," a phrase more apt than "conservatives" or "extremists":

Well, for me, it's the best word, and you can also use "extremist" or "radical," but totalitarianism means people who are committed to condemning or converting or killing everybody who does not share their interpretation of their religious tradition. That's what a totalitarian is. And it's dramatically different than an evangelical or than a conservative or than a traditionalist. You can believe that everybody except your tribe is not going to share heaven with you and still live in perfect peace and harmony and be an excellent neighbor.

(from Krista Tippett's journal at the web site of SPEAKING OF FAITH. See my link near the heading of this blog.)

Monday, August 13, 2007

Note to Self: Check into Poetry by Derek Walcott

(After reading a review of SELECTED POEMS by Derek Walcott in WEEKLY STANDARD, August 13, 2007.)

A recent review of Selected Poems by Derek Walcott has brought the Nobel Laureate to my belated attention. In his Nobel lecture (1992), he describes a recent visit to his native Trinidad, which has a sizable East Indian population. He describes the preparations for a traditional Indian play, play as worship, but by people several generations removed from the land of those traditions. He writes:

I, out of the writer's habit, searched for some sense of elegy, of loss, even of degenerative mimicry in the happy faces of the boy-warriors or the heraldic profiles of the village princes. I was polluting the afternoon with doubt and with the patronage of admiration. I misread the event through a visual echo of History - the cane fields, indenture, the evocation of vanished armies, temples, and trumpeting elephants - when all around me there was quite the opposite: elation, delight in the boys' screams, in the sweets-stalls, in more and more costumed characters appearing; a delight of conviction, not loss.

What does all this have to do with poetry? "Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole." (Read his speech at Nobel Prize. org.

The review in WEEKLY STANDARD by writer Patrick J. Walsh praises Walcott for his "passion" and, in a broad sense of the word, his religiousness. Walcott clearly believes in meaning, and poetry as a way to distill it. Maybe that's an old-fashioned notion. Writing of his own students at Boston University, Walcott relays how young students "repeat what other teachers have told them: 'this thing has too much should not use rhyme.'" This is peculiar to American culture at this time, he says, and concludes, "I think when democracy becomes too assertive it becomes fascist." I'm not sure how to interpret that. The teachers, and probably their teachers, are going to have developed their critical opinions in the era when modernism and Marxism were closely intertwined, and for them, rhyme, universality, and form itself were considered elitist, controlling, and fascist. For those teachers, "God" is an embodiment of all that's wrong with traditional society. Walcott mourns the loss of God in literature and life.

I'm not sure I could enjoy his poetry in the way I've enjoyed Lawrence Raab's, Linda Paston's, or Jane Kenyon's. I read that he has updated Homer and created other epics. I suspect that he sustains a tone of portentousness that would wear on me.

But I do love this excerpt, cited in the review:
Rhyme remains the parenthesis of palms
Shielding a candle's tongue, it is the language's
Desire to enclose the loved one in its arms.

Three lines, three metaphors, and a whole creed's worth of beliefs are there, returning to his theme of "love," and language as a way to "embrace" or "reassemble" on a page what is loved. And, as one who likes to write rhymes, I can attest to taking the kind of loving care he describes here. The second rhyme must be like the second parenthesis, enclosing something meaningful, or it's no good. Bad rhyme, which fills pop music and youthful poetry, is empty parentheses. Good rhyme moves beyond expressing an idea; its rightness and neatness makes it identical with the idea.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Lawrence Raab's Probable World: A Boomer's Poetry

(Reflections on THE PROBABLE WORLD, a collection of poems by Lawrence Raab, published by Penguin Poets. It's out of print, last time I looked.)

The poet's a Baby boomer: His imagination was shaped by comic books and movies, and his poems include space aliens, mutant humanoid crab monsters, dogs, Jimi Hendrix. Reflecting on his not serving in the army, he is not proud, he writes. His poems also touch on Bosnia, terrorism, and Columbine. Also, dogs, God, Emily Dickinson, youth, a father who died early.

Lawrence Raab doesn't rhyme, and I've not always been able to find a regular metrical length to his lines, but always close to five or six stresses. On a page, his poems seem to be organized in regular stanzas of three, five, or six lines each.

His tone is wry, gentle, whimsical. Some characters recur in the poems: a dead father who was distant in life and who appears as an enigma in dreams -- the wife who wants his imagination to settle closer to home, who says that, if the truth doesn't seem probable, he's better off toning it down -- the happy dog who brings such pleasure by feeling such pleasure.

I notice how his poems often build to an image of evil or violence and then reminds us of all the times that such bad things did NOT happen.

He shows humor, verbal mastery, wide range of references, balance, and appreciation for life outside himself. One poem speaks of "Respect" for Frost and Larkin, whose poems represent them better than their bitter and selfish personalities may have deserved. He is generous, wise, and I've returned to reading his collection (and his Collected Works) again and again.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Stoppard's ARCADIA: Math and Tenderness

(reflection on Tom Stoppard, occasioned by seeing a performance of young adults in ARCADIA at Push Push Theater, Decatur, GA)

Reflecting on an excellent college-age student production of Tom Stoppard's ARCADIA, I'm reminded of a comment made in an interview by composer - lyricist Stephen Sondheim: "In the age-old debate between form and substance, substance wins, hands down; but form is more fun." This play has so much content, with more than passing reference to late-eighteenth century literature, early Romantic trends in landscaping, chaos theory, and fractiles. But the fun, and the feeling, lies in the form.

Briefly, the play has one setting, the garden house of a centuries-old British estate. In that location, scenes alternate between life there with a bright young lady and her tutor and his many liaisons with women of the household in the early 1800s, and life there in the 1990s as some academic types dig through their old papers and try to piece together what really happened. Stoppard makes fun of easy targets: pedantic academics who casually discuss Byron, Thackeray, Coleridge as if these were people they knew. In their own minds, the air is rarefied; but we also see how fatuous they are. The academics seem more connected to life in "their period" than to the people around them. At the same time, of course, Stoppard's jokes and story depend on his audience knowing most of what these academics know.

The life circa 1809 is the heart of the play, and we do fall in love with the young lady who seems to intuit mathematical / physical equations that represent cutting edge cosmology in the late 20th century. Her tutor Septimus Hodge is a resourceful and attractive character, unflappable, generally ironic, but genuinely interested in the girl and her insights.

The substance of the play comes to a climax in the 1990s portion of the story, in a confrontation between Bernard the Literature don and Valentine the Math genius, with the woman historian Hannah (in whom both are interested) watching. Valentine has said that all of Bernard's (and Hannah's) research about Lord Byron and his love affairs is merely trivial -- "just personalities." Bernard retorts, "Why does scientific progress matter more than personalities?... Oh, you're going to zap me with penicillin and pesticides. Spare me that and I'll spare you the bomb and aerosols. But don't confuse progress with perfectibility." He goes on, "If knowledge isn't self-knowledge, it isn't doing much, mate. Is the universe expanding? Is it contracting? Is it standing on one leg and singing 'When Father Painted the Parlour'? Leave me out. I can expand my universe without you."

What Stoppard says, and demonstrates so convincingly through these polished but real characters, is that the big questions are interesting, the ones on the biggest scale and smallest scale - big bang, or sub-atomic particles -- but it's the unpredictable nature of what happens in between that makes life worth living. Hannah, after the big blow up, makes a comment about faith. She says that she has no problem with God or spirit, but she can't stand the notion of an afterlife: "If we're going to find out everything in the end [I'm quoting from memory].... if all the answers are in the back of the book, what's the point?" What these characters demonstrate as they talk and talk and talk, is the pleasure in finding out through investigation, surmise, and testing hypotheses.

I've seen many Stoppard plays: HOUND, ROSENCRANTZ, TRAVESTIES, JUMPERS, BIRTH OF LOVE, ROUGH CROSSING, THE REAL THING -- and I've read most of the rest. Tenderness is a quality that we don't find often in Stoppard's plays, and it's what he leaves us with in this wonderful play: the image of the tutor teaching his brilliant student to waltz by the light of the candle that will, we know, start the fire that ends her life. This is by far the best play of his that I've seen, and I could stand to see another three different productions.